The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (2016)
The Road to Heaven
On 15 July 1099, Jerusalem fell to the knights of the First Crusade. The journey east had been almost unbearably difficult. Many of those who set out never made it to the Holy City, killed in battle, dead from disease or hunger or taken into captivity. As the Crusaders at last reached Jerusalem, they shed tears of happiness and relief as they approached the city walls.1 When the walls of the city were finally breached after a six-week siege, the attackers were primed to shed blood. As one who witnessed the carnage that followed put it, Jerusalem was soon filled with dead bodies, corpses piled up ‘on mounds as big as houses outside the city gates. No one has ever heard of such a slaughter.’2 ‘If you had been there,’ wrote another author a few years later, ‘your feet would have been stained to the ankles with the blood of the slain. What shall I say? None of them were left alive. Neither women nor children were spared.’3
News of the capture of the Holy City spread like wildfire. The leaders of the expedition became household names overnight. One above all captured the public imagination: Bohemond, son of a Norman legend who had made a name for himself in southern Italy and Sicily, was the star of the earliest accounts of the First Crusade. Suitably handsome, with blue eyes and a smooth strong chin and sporting a distinctive short haircut, Bohemond displayed a courage and guile that were the talk of western Europe. When he returned from the east at the start of the twelfth century, he was fêted as a hero, mobbed everywhere he went, with eligible would-be brides pushed in front of him to choose from.4
Bohemond seemed to stand for everything about the emerging new world. From the perspective of the Latin chroniclers of the time, he was the perfect talisman for a decisive transfer of power from east to west. Christendom had been saved by the brave knights who had marched thousands of miles to Jerusalem. The Holy City had been liberated by the Christians - not the Greek Orthodox Christians of the Byzantine Empire, but those of Normandy, France and Flanders who made up the overwhelming majority of the expedition. The Muslims had been expelled from a city they had controlled for centuries. Bleak predictions of forthcoming apocalypse had been everywhere on the eve of the Crusade; these were now replaced by optimism, by strident self-confidence and ambition. In a matter of five years, expectations went from fearing the end of the world to welcoming the start of a new era - an age dominated by western Europe.5
New colonies were founded in Outremer - literally ‘overseas’ - ruled over by new Christian masters. It was a graphic expansion of European power: Jerusalem, Tripoli, Tyre and Antioch were all under the control of Europeans and governed by customary laws imported from the feudal west which affected everything from the property rights of the new arrivals, to tax gathering, to the powers of the King of Jerusalem. The Middle East was being recast to function like western Europe.
Over the next two centuries, enormous effort went into holding on to the territories conquered during the First Crusade and in its aftermath. The papacy repeatedly sought to impress on the knighthood of Europe that they had an obligation to defend the Holy Land. Serving the King of Jerusalem meant serving God. This message was powerfully articulated and widely circulated, resulting in large numbers of men making their way to the east, some of whom became Templar knights - a particularly popular new order whose zealous mixture of military service, devotion and piety proved intoxicatingly glamorous.
The road to Jerusalem became a road to heaven itself. At the very outset of the First Crusade in 1095, Pope Urban II had stated that those taking the cross and joining the expedition to the Holy City would receive absolution from their sins. This evolved during the course of the campaign, when the idea developed that those who fell in battle against the infidel should be considered to be on a path to salvation. Journeying east was a journey in this life and the way to reach paradise in the next.
While accounts of the triumph of Christianity, the papacy and the knighthood resounded from pulpit to pulpit and tavern to tavern in sermon, song and verse in the Christian west, in the Muslim world the reaction was mostly one of apathy. Although there had been concerted efforts to deal with the Crusaders before the capture of Jerusalem and immediately afterwards, resistance was local and limited. Some were perplexed by this laissez-faire attitude. A judge in Baghdad supposedly stormed into the Caliph’s court to decry the lack of reaction to the arrival of the armies from Europe: ‘How dare you slumber in the shade of complacent safety,’ he said to those who were present, ‘leading lives as frivolous as garden flowers, while your brothers in Syria have no dwelling place save the saddles of camels and the bellies of vultures?’ There was unspoken acquiescence in Baghdad and Cairo, based on the feeling that perhaps Christian occupation might be better than either Shīa or Sunnī rivals having control of the city. Although the speech made some around the Caliph weep, most remained aloof - and did nothing.6
The success of the First Crusade came as no consolation to the Jews of Europe or Palestine, who had witnessed shocking violence at the hands of the supposedly noble Crusaders. In the Rhineland, women, children and the elderly had been butchered in a sudden escalation of anti-Semitism in Europe. Jews were paying the price for the refocusing of western Europe’s manpower and attention towards the east.7 The bloodlust was directly linked to the idea that the Jews were responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion and that the lands of Israel should be held by the Christians of Europe. Nothing would get in the way of new connections being burrowed into the Levant.
The Crusade was hardly a triumphant story as far as the Byzantines were concerned either. Behind the military success of the Crusade and its poster boy Bohemond lay a less heroic tale - not of glorious achievements and spectacular success, but of the duplicitous betrayal of the empire. All the leaders of the expedition had met Emperor Alexios I personally as they passed through the imperial capital in 1096-7 and swore on oath, over relics of the Holy Cross, that they would hand over all the towns and territories that they conquered which had previously belonged to Byzantium.8 As the expedition dragged on, Bohemond became obsessed with how to wriggle out of these commitments and to seize the prizes for himself - chief of which was the great city of Antioch.
He took his chance when the city was captured following a debilitating siege. In one of the most dramatic stand-offs of the age, he was confronted in the Basilica of St Peter in Antioch and challenged to defend his refusal to hand the city over to the Byzantine Emperor as promised. As Raymond of Toulouse, the most powerful of all the Crusader leaders, solemnly reminded him: ‘We swore upon the Cross of the Lord, the crown of thorns and many holy relics that we would not hold without the consent of the emperor any city or castle in his dominion.’ Bohemond simply stated that the oaths were null and void because Alexios had not kept his side of the bargain; and with that he simply refused to carry on with the expedition.9
It was a mark of the brilliance of the propaganda campaign mounted in the early twelfth century which placed Bohemond squarely at the centre of the triumph of the Crusade that there was no mention of the fact that its supposed hero was nowhere near the Holy City when it fell. After a delay of nearly a year spent trying to resolve the impasse over Antioch, the Crusader army eventually set off without him. As the knights processed around Jerusalem in order to give thanks to God before starting the siege, some in bare feet to show their humility, Bohemond was hundreds of miles away, lording it over his new prize, which he had secured through sheer obstinacy and ruthlessness.10
The stand made by Bohemond at Antioch and in the surrounding region stemmed from the realisation that there were exceptional opportunities on offer in the eastern Mediterranean. In this sense, his seizure of the city was the next step in the magnetic process that had dragged ambitious, capable men from northern and western Europe for decades and centuries beforehand. The Crusade might be best remembered as a war of religion, but it was also a springboard for accruing serious wealth and power.
It was not only the Byzantines who were unimpressed by Bohemond’s refusal to hand over Antioch and by his aggressive and malicious behaviour, which saw poisonous stories circulated around Europe about Alexios by his supporters. There were others who had been deeply unenthusiastic about the Crusade in the first place - notably Roger of Sicily, part of an older generation that had made fortunes for themselves and did not want to see their position compromised. According to one Arabic historian, Roger was dismissive of plans to attack Jerusalem and tried to dampen the spirits of those excited by the prospect of new Christian colonies in the Mediterranean. Hearing of the plan to take Jerusalem, ‘Roger raised his leg and then gave a loud fart. “By the truth of my religion,” he said, “there is more use in that than in what you have to say.”’ Any advance against the Muslims would compromise his relations with leading figures in Muslim North Africa - to say nothing of the problems it would create in Sicily itself, where there was a significant Muslim population - causing friction and interrupting trade. The resulting loss of income would be compounded, he said, by revenues from agricultural land going down because exports would inevitably suffer. ‘If you are determined to wage holy war on the Muslims,’ he said, then do so. But leave Sicily well out of it.11
There were grounds for the disquiet expressed by the likes of Roger of Sicily. Mediterranean markets had experienced volatility in the decades before the Crusade. Constantinople’s spending power had declined rapidly in the face of a major financial crisis. The price of indigo dye being sold in Alexandria, for example, collapsed by more than 30 per cent in 1094 alone, and it is reasonable to assume there was a similar impact on the trade in pepper, cinnamon and ginger - even if the sources do not say so explicitly.12 The lucrative trade between North Africa and Europe via Palestine, which saw brazil-wood being sold at a 150 per cent profit in 1085, must likewise have experienced contraction.13 Sudden supply and demand shocks could lead to wild swings in prices - such as the surge in the cost of wheat that followed the Norman conquest of Sicily, or the near halving of the value of flax in the Mediterranean because of over-supply in the mid-eleventh century.14
Such fluctuations in prices and in wealth paled when compared with the transformation of the Mediterranean triggered by the impact of the Crusade. In the tenth and eleventh centuries, wrote the North African historian Ibn Khaldūn, Muslim fleets had such complete command of the seas that Christians were not even able to float a plank in it.15 But although the Muslims had long dominated the Mediterranean, they were about to lose control of the waves to a new set of rivals: the city-states of Italy were the latest additions to the great trading networks of the east.
In truth, Amalfi, Genoa, Pisa and Venice had begun to flex their muscles well before the 1090s. In the case of the latter, trade in slaves and other commodities led to strong links being built up with towns on the Dalmatian coast such as Zara, Trogir, Split and Dubrovnik, which served as stepping stones along the Adriatic and beyond. These trading stations represented local market places and provided safe locations where long journeys could be broken. The fact that the Italian communes had permanent colonies of merchants in Constantinople, as well as in other cities in Byzantium, reveals their growing interest in trade with the eastern Mediterranean.16 This fuelled economic growth back in Italy, where such great riches were being generated in Pisa in the late eleventh century that the bishop and citizens imposed limits on the height of towers built by nobles keen to show off their wealth.17
The Italian city-states were quick to grasp that the seizure of Jerusalem would open up exciting commercial possibilities. Even before the Crusaders had reached the Holy City, Genoa, Pisa and Venice had fleets out on the water, making for Syria and Palestine. In each case, the initiative to put to sea was either the direct result of appeals from the papacy to participate in the enterprise, or stemmed from the impulse to defend Christians from the horrific atrocities that were being reported by eyewitnesses and emissaries from Byzantium.18 But while spiritual motivations were an important factor, it quickly became apparent that there were significant material rewards on offer as well. The Crusaders were precariously placed after the capture of Jerusalem, in dire need of provisioning and desperate to establish links back to Europe. The fleets of the city-states put them in a powerful negotiating position when it came to dealing with the new masters of the Holy Land. Their hand was strengthened further by the Crusaders’ need to secure the littoral and ports such as Haifa, Jaffa, Acre and Tripoli where maritime power was essential in mounting a successful siege.
Terms were struck which gave fabulous potential benefits in return for help. As reward for taking part in the siege of Acre in 1100, for instance, the newly arrived Venetians were promised a church and market square in every city captured by the Crusaders, as well as one-third of all plunder taken from the enemy and immunity from all taxes. It was the perfect example of what one scholar has termed the classic Venetian blend of ‘piety and greed’.19
When Caesarea was besieged in 1101, it was the Genoese who were ideally placed to secure an impressive haul of booty together with favourable trading terms. Their position was further enhanced three years later when Baldwin I, King of Jerusalem, awarded the Genoese a sweeping set of tax exemptions as well as other legal and commercial rights - such as being free of royal jurisdiction in cases involving capital punishment. They were also awarded a third of the city of Caesarea, a third of the city of Arsuf and a third of Acre - with a generous proportion of the latter’s tax revenues. The king also committed to pay an annual retainer to Genoa, and to grant a third share of future conquests on the condition that suitable military support was given in return.20 Agreements like this were signs of the weakness of the Crusaders’ position in the east; but for the city-states they were the basis for fortunes that transformed them from regional centres into international powers.21
Not surprisingly, such dizzying rewards sparked intense competition between Pisa, Genoa and Venice. Amalfi, which had been slow off the mark in getting ships out to the east, was unable to compete, excluded from the Great Game that now kicked off as the other rivals contended for access, concessions, lucrative trading terms. As early as 1099, the Pisans and Venetians came to blows, with the latter sinking twenty-eight of a fifty-strong squadron of Pisan ships off Rhodes. Hostages and captured vessels were then released in a show of magnanimity because, according to a later source, Venetians carried the cross of the Lord not only stitched into their tunics (as the Crusaders were instructed to do by the Pope) but also stamped on their souls.22
The background to this particular fracas was that in 1092 Venice had been granted extensive trading concessions across the Byzantine Empire as part of a grand strategy by the Emperor Alexios to stimulate the economy. This saw the Venetians awarded landing pontoons in the harbour of Constantinople, and being exempted from taxes on both imports and exports.23 The primary motivation of the Venetians seven years later, therefore, was to keep Pisa out of this market place, and in doing so to protect the highly attractive terms that they had negotiated with the Emperor. As part of the settlement with Venice, the Pisans were forced to agree that they would never again enter Byzantium ‘for the sake of trade, nor fight against Christians in any manner whatsoever, unless on account of devotion to the Holy Sepulchre’. That, at least, was how the Venetians reported what happened.24
Enforcing such treaties was easier said than done, and in fact, by the early twelfth century, the Byzantine Emperor had granted Pisa its own privileges that were not dissimilar to those previously granted to Venice, if not quite as generous. Although they too were granted a quay and anchorage in the imperial capital, Pisan merchants were offered only discounted customs duties, rather than full exemption from them.25 This was a case of trying to water down a monopoly that threatened to give the Venetians an excessive advantage over their competitors.26
The scramble between the city-states of Italy for trading dominance in the eastern Mediterranean was frantic and ruthless. But it was not long before Venice emerged as the clear victor. This owed much to the city’s geographic position in the Adriatic, which meant a shorter sailing time to Venice than the trip to either Pisa or Genoa; it also helped that anchorages on this route were better, making it a safer journey too, at least once the treacherous Peloponnese had been negotiated. That Venice’s economy was stronger and more developed was also important, as was the fact that the city had no local competitor to bog it down - unlike Pisa and Genoa, whose intense rivalry removed both from the Levant at crucial moments as they competed over control of their coastlines and above all that of Corsica.27
This played to Venice’s advantage when a large army of western knights was comprehensively routed in what became known the battle of the Field of Blood in 1119, a defeat that dealt a shattering blow to Antioch’s viability as an independent Crusader state.28 With Pisa and Genoa caught up in their own squabbles, desperate appeals were sent from Antioch to the Doge in Venice, begging for help in the name of Jesus Christ. A powerful force was put together because, as one generous contemporary commentator put it, the Venetians wanted ‘with the help of God to extend Jerusalem and the area adjacent, all for the advantage and glory of Christendom’.29 Significantly, however, the pleas for assistance from King Baldwin II were accompanied by the promise of new and additional privileges in return.30
The Venetians used this opening to teach the Byzantines a lesson. The new Emperor, John II, who succeeded his father Alexios in 1118, had concluded that the domestic economy had recovered sufficiently to justify refusing to renew the concessions given to the Venetians more than two decades earlier. As a result, as the Venetian fleet made its way east towards Antioch, it laid siege to Corfu and threatened further action if the Emperor did not renew the award. A stand-off followed until the Emperor backed down and reconfirmed the privileges first granted by his father.31
This success was more than matched by the gains made when the Doge’s ships finally reached the Holy Land. Gauging the situation shrewdly, the Venetians made a loan to the western leaders in Jerusalem to enable them to fund their own forces to launch an attack on the ports that were held by the Muslims. A hefty premium was extracted in return. Venice would receive a church, a street and a square of good size in every royal and baronial city in the kingdom of Jerusalem. An annual fee would be paid to the Venetians, secured on the substantial future tax revenues of Tyre, the leading trade emporium in the region. When that city fell following a siege in 1124, Venice’s status in the region was transformed by the granting of extensive concessions that would apply throughout the kingdom of Jerusalem. From having a mere foothold, the Italian city had engineered a position of such strength that some realised it threatened to compromise the authority of the crown and immediately attempted to water down some of the terms.32
This was ostensibly a time of faith and intense religious conviction, a period marked by self-sacrifice in the name of Christianity. But religion had to jostle alongside realpolitik and financial concerns - and the church hierarchy knew it. When the Byzantine Emperor John II tried to assert his claim over Antioch, the Pope issued a declaration to all the faithful, telling them that anyone who helped the Byzantines would face eternal damnation.33 This had everything to do with keeping Rome’s allies happy, and little to do with theology or doctrine.
But the best example of the blending of the spiritual and material came after the loss of Edessa to the Muslims in 1144 - another major reversal for the Crusaders. Calls went out across Europe for reinforcements to take part in an expedition that would become the Second Crusade. The cheerleading was led by Bernard of Clairvaux, a charismatic and energetic figure, who was realistic enough to understand that the remission of sins and the possibility of salvation through martyrdom might not persuade everyone to head east. ‘To those of you who are merchants, men quick to seek a bargain,’ he wrote in a letter that was circulated widely, ‘let me point out the advantages of this great opportunity. Do not miss them!’34
By the middle of the twelfth century, the Italian city-states were lucratively exploiting the enviable positions they had so brilliantly built in the east. With preferential access to Constantinople as well as to the main cities on the coast of both the Byzantine Empire and Palestine, Venice’s stepping stones now extended right the way across the eastern Mediterranean, not only to the Levant, but before long to Egypt too. Some looked on jealously, like Caffaro, the most famous Genoese historian of the Middle Ages. Genoa ‘was asleep and suffering from indifference’, he wrote mournfully of the 1150s; it was ‘like a ship sailing across the sea without a navigator’.35
This was something of an exaggeration, revealing a little of the author’s disapproval of the powerful families who dominated Genoese politics. In fact, Genoa was also thriving in this period. As well as making sure that its privileges in the Crusader states were regularly reaffirmed, the city built ties in the western Mediterranean. In 1161, a truce was agreed with the Almohad Caliph in Morocco, which provided access to markets and protection from assault. By the 1180s, trade with North Africa accounted for more than a third of Genoese commercial activity, and an extensive infrastructure of warehouses and hostels had sprung up along the littoral to support merchants and enable business to take place smoothly.36
Genoa, Pisa and Venice stimulated the growth of a string of other towns around them - just as Kiev had done in Russia. Cities like Naples, Perugia, Padua and Verona expanded rapidly, with new suburbs expanding so fast that city walls were repeatedly rebuilt further and further out from the centre. Although assessing population sizes is difficult in the absence of clear empirical data, there is no doubt that the twelfth century saw a major surge in urbanisation in Italy as markets boomed, middle classes formed and incomes rose.37
Ironically, the basis for this growth in the age of the Crusades lay in the stability and good relations between the Muslim world and the Christians, both in the Holy Land itself and elsewhere. Although there were regular clashes in the decades after the capture of Jerusalem in 1099, it was only in the late 1170s that there was a dramatic escalation of tension. On the whole, Crusaders learnt how to deal with the majority Muslim populations that came under their sway, and with those further afield. Indeed, the King of Jerusalem regularly brought his own lords to heel, preventing them from launching reckless forays on passing caravans or on neighbouring cities that might antagonise local leaders or demand a major reaction from Baghdad or Cairo.
Some new arrivals to the Holy Land found this hard to understand and were a constant source of problems as a result, as local observers recognised. Newcomers could be incredulous that trade with the ‘infidel’ was taking place on a daily basis, and took time to realise that in practice things were not as black and white as they had been painted back in Europe. In time, prejudices wore off: westerners who had been in the east for a while ‘are much better than those recently arrived’, wrote one Arabic author who was appalled by the crude and uncouth habits of new arrivals - as well as by their attitudes to anyone who was not Christian.38
There were Muslim parallels to this way of thinking too. One fatwa, or declaration, issued in the 1140s urged Muslims neither to travel to the west nor trade with the Christians. ‘If we travel to their country the price of commodities will rise, and they will gather from us huge sums of money which they will use to fight Muslims and raid their lands.’39 By and large, however, for all the fiery rhetoric on both sides, relations were remarkably calm and considered. Indeed, in western Europe, there was considerable curiosity about Islam. Even at the time of the First Crusade, it had not taken long for some to form positive opinions about the Muslim Turks. ‘If only the Turks had stood firm in the faith of Christ and Christendom,’ wrote the author of one of the most popular histories of the expedition to Jerusalem wistfully - perhaps even hinting at the previous religious background of the Seljuks before they became Muslims; ‘you could not find stronger or braver or more skilful soldiers.’40
It was not long either before the scientific and intellectual achievements of the Muslim world were being actively sought out and devoured by scholars in the west, such as Adelard of Bath.41 It was Adelard who scoured the libraries of Antioch and Damascus and brought back copies of algorithmic tables that formed the foundation for the study of mathematics in the Christian world. Travelling round this region was to have one’s eyes opened. When he returned home, he ‘found the princes barbarous, the bishops bibulous, judges bribable, patrons unreliable, clients sycophants, promisers liars, friends envious and almost everybody full of ambition’.42 These views were formed from the sanguine recognition of the east’s sophistication compared to the cultural limitations in the Christian west. Adelard’s view was shared by others - such as Daniel of Morley, who moved from England to study in Paris in the latter part of the twelfth century. The austere supposed intellectuals in that city flattered to deceive, simply sitting ‘still as statues, pretending to show wisdom by remaining silent’. Realising that there was nothing he could learn from these men, Daniel moved to Muslim Toledo ‘as quickly as [he] could, so that [he] could hear the wisest philosophers of the world’.43
Ideas from the east were taken on eagerly, if unevenly. Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny, which was the powerhouse of theological and intellectual thought in medieval France, arranged to have the Qurān translated so that he and other Christian scholars might better understand it - and, admittedly, use it to reinforce pre-existing views about Islam as deviant, shameful and dangerous.44 Nor was it only to the Muslim lands that western Europeans turned for inspiration. Texts produced in Constantinople were also translated into Latin, such as the commentaries on Aristotle’s Nicomachaean Ethics commissioned by Anna Komnene, daughter of Alexios I, which eventually found their way to Thomas Aquinas - and thence into the mainstream of Christian philosophy.45
In the same way, it was not only trade with the Muslims that lay at the heart of the economic and social blossoming of Europe in the twelfth century, for Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire were a major motor in the commerce of the Christian Mediterranean - responsible for half the international trade of Venice, to judge from the surviving documents for this period.46 Even so, and while glass, metalwork, oil, wine and salt from Byzantium were exported to markets in Italy, Germany and France, it was products being brought from further afield that were most highly prized, sought after and profitable.
The demand for silk, cotton, linen and fabrics produced in the eastern Mediterranean, in the middle of Asia or in China was enormous, as inventories, sales lists and treasuries of churches in western Europe make clear.47 Cities in the Levant capitalised on the emerging markets - with Antioch establishing itself as a trading centre where materials could shipped west, but also as a production centre in its own right. Textiles from the city such as ‘Cloth of Antioch’ were marketed so successfully and became so desirable that King Henry III of England (ruled 1216-72) had ‘Antioch Chambers’ in each of his principal residences: the Tower of London, Clarendon and Winchester Palaces, and Westminster.48
Spices also began to flow to Europe from the east in increasing volumes. These reached three primary hubs - Constantinople, Jerusalem and Alexandria - and were then shipped to the Italian city communes and on to markets in Germany, France, Flanders and Britain, where there were fat profits to be made on the sale of exotic goods. In some ways the desire to buy expensive luxuries from the orient was a similar process to the steppe nomads’ demand for silk bolts from the Chinese court: in the medieval world, just as today, the wealthy needed to differentiate themselves by showing off their status. Although trade in expensive objects and goods involved only a small proportion of the population, they were important because they enabled differentiation - and therefore reveal social mobility and rising aspirations.
While Jerusalem had a totemic role as the centre-point of Christendom, it also had a role as an emporium in its own right, although the town of Acre outranked it as a trading centre. A list of taxes to be collected in the kingdom in the later twelfth century provides a detailed insight into what could be bought there at that time, as well as betraying the close attention of a sophisticated chancery anxious not to lose out on valuable revenues. Charges were to be applied to the sale of pepper, cinnamon, alum, varnish, nutmeg, flax, cloves, aloe wood, sugar, salt fish, incense, cardamom, ammonia, ivory and much besides.49 The vast majority of these goods did not originate in the Holy Land but were transited there via the trade routes controlled by the Muslims - including through the ports of Egypt, which exported an impressive catalogue of spices, textiles and luxury objects according to an Arabic tax treatise of this period.50
Ironically, therefore, the Crusades not only served to stimulate economies and societies in western Europe; they also enriched Muslim middlemen who spotted that new markets could produce rich rewards. One of the canniest was Rāmisht of Sīrāf in the Persian Gulf, who made a fortune in the early twelfth century. His genius was to meet rising demand by acting as a middleman for goods from China and India, with one of his agents shipping goods valued at over half a million dinars in one year alone. His wealth was legendary - as was his generosity. He paid for a golden water spout to replace that made of silver at the Kaba in Mecca, and personally funded new fabric - Chinese cloth whose ‘value cannot be estimated’, according to one account of this period - that was draped over the Kaba after the original became damaged. His good deeds led to him having the rare distinction of being buried in Mecca, where the text written on his tombstone reads: ‘Here lies the ship-owner Abul-Qāsim Rāmisht; “May God have mercy on him and on whoever asks for mercy for him.”’51
The riches at stake inevitably led to an intensification of rivalries and a new chapter in the medieval Great Game: the pursuit of primacy in the eastern Mediterranean at all costs. By the 1160s, competition between the Italian city-states was so acute that there were running battles between Venetians, Genoese and Pisans in the streets of Constantinople. Despite attempts by the Byzantine Emperor to intervene, outbreaks of violence were to become regular occurrences. This was presumably the result of increasing commercial competition and the consequence of falling prices: trading positions had to be protected, by force if necessary.
The self-interest of the city-states antagonised the capital’s inhabitants, both because of the damage done to property in the city and because the flexing of western muscles was increasingly evident elsewhere. In 1171, the Byzantine Emperor responded to growing disillusion by imprisoning thousands of Venetians and ignoring pleas for redress, let alone apologising for his unilateral, unannounced actions. When Doge Vitale Michiel was unable to resolve matters after sailing to Constantinople in person, the situation in Venice became febrile. With crowds gathered hoping to hear positive news, disappointment turned to anger which then gave way to violence. Attempting to flee his own people, the Doge made for the convent of San Zaccaria; before he could get there, a mob caught up with him and lynched him.52
The Byzantines were no longer Venice’s allies and benefactors but rivals and competitors in their own right. In 1182, the inhabitants of Constantinople attacked the citizens of the Italian city-states who were living in the imperial capital. Many were killed, including the representative of the Latin church, whose head was dragged through the city’s streets behind a dog.53 This was just the start of rising animosities between the Christians of the two halves of Europe. In 1185, Thessaloniki, one of the Byzantine Empire’s most important cities, was sacked by a western force from southern Italy. The west had sunk a harpoon into the eastern Mediterranean with the First Crusade; now it was reeling its prey in.
For some, though, the tensions provided an opportunity. The star of a brilliant general named Ṣalā al-Dīn al-Ayyubī had been rising in Egypt for some time. With good connections, an astute mind and no little charm, the man better known as Saladin recognised that conflict in Constantinople could work to his advantage. He moved quickly to conciliate the Byzantines, making a point of inviting the Greek patriarch of Jerusalem to visit Damascus, treating him with conspicuous generosity to demonstrate that he, rather than the Christians from the west, was the natural ally for the empire.54
At the end of the 1180s, the Byzantine Emperor Isaac II was sufficiently well disposed to write ‘to [my] brother the Sultan of Egypt, Saladin’ to share intelligence reports with him, warning that rumours about the empire’s intentions put out by his enemies were without foundation, and asking Saladin to consider sending military support against the westerners.55 Anti-western sentiment had been brewing in Constantinople for decades. One writer in the middle of the twelfth century stated that men from western Europe were unreliable, rapacious and willing to sell family members in return for money. Although many so-called pilgrims claimed to be devout, wrote the daughter of one emperor, they were really motivated only by greed. They were constantly planning to capture the imperial city, damage the reputation of the empire or harm their fellow Christians.56 It was a story that was to become expanded and cemented in Byzantine consciousness in the late twelfth century and above all after 1204.
It was a view that found an echo in the Holy Land itself, where the knights were so violent and irresponsible it was almost as though they had a death wish. Time and again in the late twelfth century, leading figures made idiotic decisions, picked fatuous fights with each other and failed to prepare for the tidal wave that was approaching them in spite of obvious warning signs. Their carrying-on bemused one Muslim visitor from Spain in this period. It is amazing to see, wrote Ibn Jubayr, that ‘the fires of discord burn’ between Christians and Muslims when it comes to politics and fighting; but when it comes to trade, travellers ‘come and go without interference’.57
Merchants could be assured of security wherever they went, regardless of their faith, and regardless of whether there was peace or war. This was the result, wrote the author, of a good working relationship, whereby mutual tax treaties ensured co-operation, as did severe punishments. Latin traders who did not respect the agreements and crossed agreed boundaries, even if only by ‘the length of the arms’, had their throats cut out by fellow Christians anxious not to upset the Muslims or mess up long-standing commercial ties. Ibn Jubayr was both bemused and impressed. It is ‘one of the most pleasing and singular conventions of the [westerners]’.58
As the court in Jerusalem turned in on itself, infighting between rival factions became endemic, creating the perfect conditions for the rise of bullish and ambitious figures who over-promised success and caused untold damage to Christian-Muslim relations. Chief among these was Reynald of Châtillon, whose recklessness almost single-handedly brought down the kingdom of Jerusalem.
A veteran of the Holy Land, Reynald recognised that pressure was mounting as Saladin’s position in Egypt strengthened - especially after the latter began to bring large parts of Syria under his control, thereby surrounding the Christian kingdom. Reynald’s attempts to mitigate the threat were spectacularly unsuccessful. His hot-headed decision to attack the port of Aqaba on the Red Sea provoked near-hysterical reactions among Arab commentators, who screamed that Medina and Mecca were under threat and that the apocalypse and the end of time were at hand.59
Such moves were not just antagonistic, but escalated the prestige and popularity that the Saladin would gain if he could deliver a crushing blow to the Crusader state. Of all the Christians in the east, wrote one contemporary Muslim writer, Reynald was ‘the most perfidious and wicked … the most eager to cause harm and to do evil, to break firm promises and serious oaths, to violate his word and to perjure himself’. Saladin swore ‘that he would have his life’.60
He soon had his chance. In July 1187, the knights of the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem were caught at the Horns of Hattin where they were outmanoeuvred, outthought and outfought by Saladin in a devastating battle that left almost every western combatant dead or captured. Members of the military orders who had been taken prisoner, notably Hospitallers and Templars - firebrands who lacked the willingness to compromise when dealing with non-Christian communities - were summarily executed. Saladin sought out Reynald of Châtillon personally, and beheaded him. Whether or not Reynald was the principal architect of the Crusaders’ demise is open to debate, but he made for a convenient scapegoat for the defeated Latins and the victorious Muslims alike. Whatever the truth, barely two months after the battle Jerusalem surrendered peacefully to the Muslims, its gates flung open after terms had been agreed to spare the city’s inhabitants.61
The fall of the city was a humiliating blow for the Christian world and a major setback for Europe’s connections with the east. The papacy took the news badly - Urban III apparently dropped dead on hearing of the defeat at Hattin. His successor, Gregory VIII, led the soul-searching. The Holy City had fallen, he announced to the faithful, not only because of ‘the sins of its inhabitants but also [because of] our own and those of the whole Christian people’. The power of the Muslims was rising, he warned, and would advance unless it was checked. He urged that kings, princes, barons and cities that were arguing with each other should set aside their differences and respond to what had happened. This was a frank admission that, for all the rhetoric about the knighthood being motivated by faith and piety, the reality was that self-interest, local rivalries and squabbling were the order of the day. Jerusalem had fallen, the Pope said, because of the failure of the Christians to stand up for what they believed in. Sin and evil had overwhelmed them.62
This provocative and strident message had an immediate effect, and it was not long before the three most powerful men in the west began preparations to launch a retaliatory expedition. With Richard I of England, Philip II of France and the mighty Frederick Barbarossa, the German Holy Roman Emperor, vowing to recover the Holy City, it seemed reasonable to think that there was a chance not just to retake Jerusalem but to re-embed the Christian position in the Middle East. The efforts of 1189-92, however, were a fiasco. Frederick drowned crossing a river in Asia Minor, miles from the proposed theatre of combat. There were fierce arguments among the leadership about strategic objectives, with disagreements all but bringing the armies to a standstill. This was typified by the attempt of Richard ‘the Lionheart’ to turn the expedition away from Jerusalem itself and focus instead on the occupation of Egypt - a richer and juicier prize. As it was, the campaign achieved few permanent gains, and failed to put Jerusalem under pressure. In fact, before the leaders headed for home, it was striking that their attention turned to Acre, the primary emporium in the Levant - which had no value from a biblical or religious perspective.63
Hardly a decade later, there was another attempt to recover the Holy Land. Venice was to be the cornerstone of the assault this time, transporting men east by ship. Initially reluctant to help, the Doge was persuaded to back the initiative after receiving commitments that the cost of constructing the fleet required to transport the massive number of troops needed for the expedition would be funded by the participants. The Venetians also insisted on shaping the direction of the forthcoming campaign, mandating that the fleet would make for Egypt rather than the ports serving Jerusalem. This decision, according to one closely involved in the planning, ‘was kept a closely guarded secret; to the public at large, it was announced that we were going overseas’.64
The proposed expedition was a match made in heaven: spiritual salvation and the promise of rich rewards for those who took part. The wealth of Egypt was the stuff of legend. Its people were ‘devoted to luxurious living’, wrote one author in this period, and were fabulously wealthy as a result of ‘taxes from the cities both on the coast and farther inland’. These, he noted with a sigh, produced a ‘vast amount of annual revenue’.65
The Venetians were acutely aware of what was at stake, for their city’s traditional arteries leading east had been subject to upheaval and uncertainty. With the turbulence following Saladin’s successes matched by a period of instability in Byzantium, Venice was desperate to get exposure to Alexandria and the ports at the mouth of the Nile, places where it had traditionally been under-exposed: perhaps as little as 10 per cent of Venetian trade was with Egypt before 1200.66 The city had previously lost out to Pisa and Genoa, which both had decisive advantages over their Italian rival in volumes of trade and in the connections they had established with commerce coming through the Red Sea - rather than overland to Constantinople and to Jerusalem.67 The prizes on offer go a long way to accounting for the risks that Venice took in agreeing to build a huge fleet, which involved suspending all other work for the best part of two years.
It soon became clear, however, that the numbers of those keen to take part were far lower than anticipated - leaving Venice dangerously out of pocket. Events now overtook the Crusaders, with policy being improvised on the go. In 1202, the fleet arrived at Zara on the Dalmatian coast, a city that had been at the centre of a long-running struggle between Venice and Hungary. As it became clear that an attack was imminent, the confused citizens hoisted banners marked with crosses over the walls, assuming that there had been a chronic misunderstanding and refusing to believe that a Christian force would attack a Christian city without provocation - and against the express orders of Pope Innocent III. The city was not spared; Venice was extracting its pound of flesh from the knights.68
As the Crusaders considered how to justify such actions and argued about what to do next, a golden opportunity presented itself when one of the claimants to the throne in Byzantium offered to reward the army generously if they helped him take power in Constantinople. The forces that had originally set out for Egypt under the impression that they were heading for Jerusalem found themselves by the walls of the Byzantine capital, weighing up their options. As negotiations with factions inside the city dragged on, discussion among the Crusaders turned to how to take the city, and above all how to divide it and the rest of the empire between them.69
Venice had already learnt to guard its interests in the Adriatic and the Mediterranean jealously; it had strengthened this position by taking direct control of Zara. Here was the chance to seize control of the biggest prize of all, and in doing so secure direct access to the east. At the end of March 1204, men began to move into position to besiege New Rome. All-out assault began in the second week in April. Ladders, battering rams and catapults that were meant to help wrest control of cities from the Muslims were instead used against what was still by far the largest Christian city in the world. Ships that had been designed and built to blockade harbours in Egypt and the Levant were used to cut off sea access to the famous Golden Horn, in full view of the great cathedral of Hagia Sophia. On the eve of the battle, bishops reassured the westerners that the war ‘was a righteous one and that they should certainly attack the [Byzantines]’. Referring to the disputes about doctrine that surfaced with convenient regularity when there were other, more material issues at stake, the priests said that the inhabitants of Constantinople could be assaulted on the basis that they had declared that ‘the law of Rome counted for nothing and called all who believed in it dogs’. The Byzantines, the Crusaders were told, were worse than the Jews; ‘they are the enemies of God’.70
When the walls were breached, chaotic scenes followed as the westerners rampaged through the city. Whipped into a religious frenzy by the poisonous words that had been dripped into their ears, they plundered and desecrated the city’s churches with particular thoroughness. They stormed the treasuries of Hagia Sophia, stealing the jewelled vessels containing the relics of saints and jesting with the spear that had pierced Jesus’ side on the cross. Silver and precious-metal objects used to celebrate the Eucharist were seized. Horses and donkeys were led into the church to be loaded up with booty, some slipping on the polished marble floors that were polluted with ‘blood and filth’. To add insult to injury, a rowdy prostitute sat in the patriarch’s seat singing obscene songs. To one Byzantine eyewitness, the Crusaders were nothing other than the forerunners of the Antichrist.71
There is more than enough source material to indicate that such accounts were not exaggerated. One western abbot went directly to the church of the Pantokrator (Christ the Almighty), established in the twelfth century by the imperial family. ‘Show me the most powerful relics you have,’ he commanded a priest, ‘or you shall die immediately.’ He found a chest filled with church treasures, into which he ‘eagerly thrust both hands’. When others asked him where he had been and if he had stolen anything, all he would say, with a nod and a smile, was ‘we have done well’.72
Little wonder then that as one Byzantine inhabitant left the city, he threw himself to the ground, wept and reproached the walls because ‘they alone were unmoved, neither shedding tears nor destroyed on the ground; they remained standing, quite upright’. It was as though they were mocking him: how had they not protected the city? The very soul of the city was ripped out by the rampaging troops in 1204.73
Constantinople’s physical riches were spirited away to churches, cathedrals, monasteries and private collections all over western Europe. Sculptures of horses that had stood proudly at the Hippodrome were loaded on to ships and transported to Venice where they were mounted above the entrance to St Mark’s Cathedral; innumerable relics and precious objects were likewise transported to the city, where they remain today, admired by tourists as examples of fine Christian craftsmanship rather than war booty.74
As if that were not bad enough, when Enrico Dandolo, the blind old Doge who had come from Venice to witness the attack on Constantinople, died the following year, it was decided that he should be buried in Hagia Sophia. He was the first person in history to be buried in the great cathedral.75 It was a highly symbolic statement that spoke volumes about the rise of Europe. For centuries, men had looked east to make their fortunes and realise their ambitions - whether spiritual or material. The sack and capture of the biggest and most important city in Christendom showed that the Europeans would stop at nothing to take what they wanted - and needed - to get closer to the centre of where the world’s wealth and power lay.
Although they looked like men, the westerners behaved like animals, wrote one prominent Greek cleric mournfully, adding that the Byzantines were treated with abysmal cruelty as virgins were raped and innocent victims impaled. The sack of the city was so brutal that one modern scholar has written of a ‘lost generation’ in the years that followed the Fourth Crusade as the Byzantine imperial apparatus was forced to regroup in Nicaea in Asia Minor.76
In the meantime, the westerners set about dividing the empire among themselves. After consulting tax registers in Constantinople, a new document entitled Partitio terrarum imperii Romaniae - The Partition of the Lands of the Roman Empire - was produced, setting out who would take what. This was no accidental or haphazard process; it was cold and calculated dismemberment.77 From the very outset, men such as Bohemond had shown that the Crusades - which promised to defend Christendom, to do the Lord’s work and deliver salvation to the many who took the cross - could be hijacked for other purposes. The sack of Constantinople was the obvious culmination of the desire of Europe to connect and embed itself in the east.
As the Byzantine Empire was dismantled, the Europeans led by the Italian city-states Pisa, Genoa and Venice rushed to seize strategically and economically important regions, towns and islands at each other’s expense. Fleets clashed regularly off Crete and Corfu as each vied to gain control of the best bases and to obtain the best access to markets.78 On land too, there was a scramble for territory and status that was particularly fierce in the fertile plains of Thrace, Constantinople’s breadbasket.79
Attention soon turned again to Egypt, which in 1218 became the focus of another large-scale expedition whose aim was to fight through from the Nile delta to Jerusalem. Francis of Assisi joined the armies that sailed south in the hope of persuading the Sultan al-Kāmil to renounce Islam and become a Christian - something even the charismatic Francis was not able to achieve despite being given the opportunity to do so in person.80 After taking Damietta in 1219, the Crusaders attempted to march on to Cairo, which ended in a disastrous routing at the hands of the unconverted al-Kāmil that ultimately brought the expedition to an ignominious halt. As the leaders considered an offer to agree terms and argued between themselves about the right course of action to take in the face of heavy defeat, reports were received of what seemed nothing less than a miracle.
News came through that a large army was marching from deep inside Asia to help the western knights against Egypt. Crushing all opposition as they advanced, they were heading to the Crusaders’ relief. The identity of the inbound relief force was immediately obvious: these were the men of Prester John, the ruler of a vast and phenomenally wealthy kingdom whose inhabitants included the Amazons, Brahmans, Lost Tribes of Israel and an array of mythical and semi-mythical creatures. Prester John ostensibly ruled over a kingdom that was not only Christian but as close to heaven on earth as possible. Letters that started to appear in the twelfth century left little doubt as to his magnificence or the glory of his realm: ‘I, Prester John, am the lord of lords, and I surpass all the kings of the entire world in wealth, virtue and power … Milk and honey flow freely in our lands; poison can do no harm, nor do any noisy frogs croak. There are no scorpions, no serpents creeping in the grass.’ It was rich in emeralds, diamonds, amethysts and other precious stones, as well as in pepper and elixirs that staved off all illnesses.81 Rumours of his arrival were enough to affect decisions made in Egypt: the Crusaders simply needed to hold their nerve and victory would be assured.82
This proved to be an early lesson for the European experience of Asia. Unfamiliar with what to believe, the Crusaders set great store by rumours that struck a chord with reports that had circulated for decades following the defeat of the Sultan Amad Sanjar in Central Asia in the 1140s. This incident had given rise to impossibly convoluted and optimistic ideas about what lay beyond the Seljuk Empire. As news first swept through the Caucasus of forces advancing like the wind, gossip quickly became fact: it was said that ‘magi’ were heading west bearing crosses and portable tents that could be erected into churches. The liberation of Christendom seemed to be at hand.83 One leading cleric at Damietta spelt this out in no uncertain terms, preaching that ‘David, king of the two Indies, was hastening to the aid of the Christians, bringing with him most ferocious peoples who will devour the sacrilegious Saracens like beasts.’84
It soon became clear how wrong these reports were. The rumbling that could be heard from the east was not Prester John, his son ‘King David’ or a Christian army marching to the aid of their brethren. It was the noise preceding the arrival of something altogether different. What was heading towards the Crusaders - and towards Europe - was not the road to heaven, but a path that seemed to lead straight to hell. Galloping along it were the Mongols.85